Sunday, February 11, 2007

On The Cooler Shades Of Escape

"Full strength in No. 3 turret!" shouted the Commander. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. "The old man will get us through" they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!" . . .

"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"

"Hmm?" said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. "You were up to fifty-five," she said. "You know I don't like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five." Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.

From The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, by James Thurber.

Fiction is where I go to escape. And because this mode of mind-transport is wildly affordable, considering the distance it sometimes takes you, I'll gladly hop on board a short story or novella given the slightest excuse; when time permits, which is far less often than I'd like, I'll set our for the longer journeys offered by novels and epics and series. Long or short, though, if the story is going to succeed in transporting me from the chaos and vicissitudes of a given day to a thoroughly engrossing parallel narrative, the visuals and voiceovers of which I'll be supplying myself, it absolutely has to be more interesting and dynamic--or, at least, more elegantly scripted and suffused with enlightenment--than any real-life drama unfolding around me.

I need my Mitty moments as much as the next person, and reading fiction has provided me with the neuronal armature for many a hastily-built, sanity-preserving fantasy. I also feel for the Walters of the world, in no small part because I am one myself.

Finding such stories--ones that engage your empathy, ones that fuel your imagination--is easier said than done, however, even when you know exactly what title you're seeking. In the large chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, literary fiction--particularly novels by authors who are new, or who, despite their magic ways with words, might be described as terminally or even marginally obscure--seems to be banished to the uppermost, furthermost shelves. While you'll see a few of the classics in prominent piles here and there, and the odd newly-published work of literary fiction will sometimes enjoy a short stay on one of the tables in the middle aisle, it's a fair bet that when the next drop-shipment of diet tomes or Chick Lit arrives, those books belonging to the more complicated and untidy (and fuchsia-free) category of Literary Fiction--or, as Oscar the Grouch would say, anything dirty or dingy or dusty; anything ragged or rotten or rusty--will invariably get whisked away to one of the wall units in the back.

As a respected literary agent recently told me, "In the past year, we've only sold one literary fiction manuscript."

This is awfully discouraging for someone who loves a good story, more so when she aspires to write and publish one herself. A work of literary fiction can sometimes take years to form in your mind and make its way onto the page, and the process of imagining, writing, and assembling a story is at once thrilling and exhausting. Always, it's a gestation, an enormous investment of mind and soul. You dream big dreams for your creation. You don't want it to stay in its incubator indefinitely; you want to see it strong and healthy, running around in the sunshine and making friends.

And if you're realistic, you know you're facing a battle steeper than any library ladder. Because, as columnist Maureen Dowd lamented this week, publishers have decided that girls just want to read fun:

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn’t find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine’s Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves.

Chick Lit, it seems, is the new Beach Read. Certainly Florida's airports have been filled with such offerings for years, the idea being that you buy your beach read on the way to baggage claim and try not to read the whole thing on your way to the hotel.

Years ago, I purchased, and finished in its entirety, the novel Bridget Jones's Diary while waiting to take a flight to New York. The book was indeed funny here and there, and its heroine was perfectly agreeable, weighted down with all the expected flaws as she was. Still, I was hoping for the kind of story that takes your very awareness into custody, that obliterates superficial travel-related annoyances like claustrophobia and olfactory overload. But I wasn't transported, I wasn't engaged, and I felt little empathy for the lovelorn Bridget because the narrative followed such well-traveled paths--pink ones, if you will--and I sensed all along that my participation as image-generator and voiceover had been as carefully, tritely scripted as the narrative itself. And as most sugary things tend to do, it left me feeling sticky, self-indulgent, and oddly empty. Not empathetic, enlightened, and possessed of greater social acumen--things that, according to a recent University of Toronto, Department of Psychology study entitled Bookworms Versus Nerds, correlate positively with the reading of fiction:

Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels. Frequent fiction readers may thus bolster or maintain their social abilities unlike frequent readers of non-fiction. Lifetime exposure to fiction and non-fiction texts was examined along with performance on empathy/social-acumen measures. In general, fiction print-exposure positively predicted measures of social ability, while non-fiction print-exposure was a negative predictor. The tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores.

This would appear to be a sound conclusion, though you could argue that empathetic, socially-engaged people might be more likely to prefer, and seek out, fiction in the first place.

As to the issue of Chick Lit, or Beach Reads 2: The Pinkening, I can only offer my own subjective observations. Which is to say, when I'm stuck in horrible traffic and the boys are waging internecine feuds in the back seat of the Good Ship Entropy, my escape fantasies tend to resemble a scene in a John LeCarre spy thriller. Or an ethereal dream sequence from another place and time, à la Amy Tan; a shocking moral conundrum set forth by Margaret Atwood for me to solve; a bitingly funny passage from one of Martin Amis's efforts to recite in the brain for the sheer semantic pleasure of it. Now there's the stuff of true escape: literary fiction.

To publishers everywhere, I'll say this: I'm certainly not going to fantasize about shopping or dark, handsome men, the former of which seems too much like the near-daily hunting and gathering of groceries I have to do anyway; the latter of which, having got me into this mess to begin with, will more likely than anything trigger a real-life fight-or-flight response in my brain stem.

Also at Ezra's place.

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